The Cornered Cat
Normalization of Deviance

Here’s something from my current writing project…

Before the students arrive, you will want to walk through the range to be sure it will meet your needs, and then get everything set up to your satisfaction. This includes checking the berms and backstops, and the entire surrounding area, for any safety issues.

It may sound a little strange that I suggest checking a range facility for safety issues. Don’t other people shoot there, and if so, haven’t they already checked it? Would the range still be in business if something about the layout were unsafe?

Maybe. Maybe not. Medical and aviation personnel share an important safety concept called the normalization of deviance, and it’s a concept that definitely applies to us in the shooting community too. Here’s how that works.

After the Challenger space shuttle destroyed itself in 1986, analysis showed that faulty O-rings in the Challenger’s solid rocket boosters failed, causing the catastrophic explosion that took seven lives. A few years later, Challenger’s sister ship, Columbia, burned up when returning from a mission in 2003. The Columbia’s heat tiles were damaged when a piece of foam insulation broke off during takeoff and struck the tiles on the wing. The damaged tiles failed during the heat of reentry and the craft burned up with the loss of all aboard.

What you may not know or not remember is this: scientists at NASA had seen both types of damage before these disasters. They had seen similar damage on previous missions that did not end in catastrophes. Earlier shuttles had sometimes had faulty O-rings, and people working at NASA knew that the problem could get worse in cold weather. Shuttles had experienced minor tile damage during take offs before, and the people in charge of the launch were used to seeing it happen. In both cases, management had slowly accepted an increasing amount of damage and risk. With each successful mission, the degree of quality was allowed to deviate downward for the simple reason that nothing terrible had happened when launch managers ignored previous warning signs.

That’s the normalization of deviance at work. Whenever we see something risky that doesn’t lead to a catastrophic result, we become more tolerant of the risk. Each time we lower a standard but nothing bad happens, we become more likely to accept that lowered standard and more open to lowering the standard again. After all, nothing bad happened last time … right? And it doesn’t just apply to NASA and space shuttles. It is a natural human tendency that shows up in nearly every system where people create and follow safety standards.

By now you may be starting to see where this is going. What does the normalization of deviance have to do with firearms instruction and range safety?

Short answer: everything.

Every time we pick up a firearm and every time we walk onto the range, we are building a record of behavioral expectations for ourselves. Every time we deviate from our established standard and nothing bad happens, we become more likely to behave the same way again in the future. “Just this once” is habit-forming. Not only that, but when we relax a safety standard because nothing bad happened last time, we become more willing to relax it even further than that next time.

For example:

  • We might allow students to handle unloaded guns in a classroom that does not have a true safe direction. We might tell ourselves that because the guns are unloaded, we don’t really need a definite backstop that would reliably stop a bullet from going through the wall to hit someone on the other side. When we do that and nothing bad happens, we enjoy the convenience and forget the risk, and become more likely to do the same thing again the next time we teach a class.

“A history of success and positive outcomes does far more to erode our standards than a single negative outcome. The longer our success, the more normalization of deviance comes in to play. Get away with doing something unsafe or substandard enough times and the unsafe and substandard become your standard.” – Steve Whitehead

  • We might not watch carefully to stop students from muzzling themselves while getting guns out of their bags at the beginning of the day. When we let students take care of their own gearing up and nothing bad happens, we’re more likely to be relaxed about how our students gear up in the next class we teach.
  • We might set up our targets in front of a backstop made of materials we aren’t quite sure of. When nothing bad happens, we’re likely to trust that berm and others like it the next time we shoot.
  • The outdoor range we use might have a dirt backstop that has eroded over time to become much lower than the original designers intended. When regular range members shoot on that bay but nothing bad happens, they’re less likely to worry about shooting toward a low backstop. As the backstop erodes, so does their concern with maintaining it.

Every action we take builds a record inside our minds that helps us decide what we will do in the future. This isn’t only true for us, but for everyone we know. And for every organization we work with and for. Like a sand castle on a windy day, human safety standards face a persistent, relentless pressure to erode. We must constantly fight this process, watching for it and rebuilding our safety standards every time we notice them beginning to slip.

More than that, we must fight this process even when others around us don’t seem to be doing the same thing. That isn’t always easy. We may find ourselves struggling to hold a line that others have apparently let go. Worse than that, even when we’ve made a strong internal commitment to resisting the forces of erosion, we may be tempted to keep our mouths shut when we spot a potential problem. When the people around us can’t see what the big deal is because they do this all the time and nobody’s had a problem with it before, it can be hard to explain our reasons for sticking to a high safety standard. That’s a tough decision to make and an uncomfortable place to live.

So why do it? We do it because we understand that not sticking to the standard can end in catastrophic pain, injury, or death. And because we don’t want to contribute to a disaster. And, most of all, we hold the line because we love our students and are committed to keeping them safe.

4 Responses to Normalization of Deviance

  1. LadyK says:

    I walked into a gun shop yesterday and asked to see a few pistols. I was surprised when the owner layed out pistols for me without clearing them. When I proceeded to clear the 3 pistols the owner became upset and told me I didn’t have to do that.
    That seemed like a good time to walk out. He had not had an accident yet, so his safety standards had just about disappeared

  2. cjdj79 says:

    Great article. This is appropriate information for so many things in our lives.

  3. Daniel in Brookline says:

    An excellent article! Many thanks.

    If I may add — another reason for checking the range for safety issues is simple. It’s the same reason you check a gun when someone hands it to you, regardless if you just watched them clear it. It’s also the same reason why you look out the car window to see if traffic is coming, even if your spouse just told you that it’s clear.

    If something bad happens, it’s all on you. If you’re holding a gun and it goes off, it does no good to say that someone else checked it. If your spouse tells you there’s no car coming, but you get hit anyway by a car they didn’t see, it’s still you that must deal with the consequences. And if the berm has eroded and one of your shots escapes the area, it’s still your gun that did it.

    It can be comforting to let someone else be responsible for stuff… but some kinds of responsibility cannot be delegated. More to the point — someone else’s normalization of deviance does not require us to follow suit.

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